Storytellers often defend their work that is criticized for a poor ending (cough-cough LOST) by claiming that the story or plot didn’t really matter—it was about the characters all along. This is a cop-out. The most important part of any story is the STORY, not the characters, and a story is not a story without “The End.”
Stories are first and foremost about story, not character. If you merely want a character to care about, go out into the real world to find real characters to care for. There are plenty of humans in need of care. Fiction is different than real life precisely because it is a story about fake humans. Ideally characters are archetypes that represent real aspects of human nature. Fictional people ultimately don’t matter in reality, but a meaningful story about fictional people can be quite meaningful.
The purpose of stories is to expand your consciousness in the scope of morality, empathy, philosophy, and psychology. Storytellers may use characters to achieve this, but the goal of the story isn’t to make the characters likable or for audiences to care about them emotionally; it’s to use the characters as archetypal chess pieces to portray truth.
Making readers “care” about the characters is only useful as a means to get the reader to care about the story. Fictional characters are not useful or meaningful in themselves—only as story devices. If you’re creating a fictional story to only care about the characters, then that is as much mindless popcorn entertainment as a pure action movie like Transformers. It’s nothing beyond emotional manipulation, just different emotions.
Citizen Kane is widely considered to be the greatest movie ever made. This is for many reasons, including Orson Welles’ innovative filmmaking techniques, the cinematography, the acting, the characters, the music, the themes, the scope, the script, and the story. Yes, it had great characters and a great story (almost all great stories have both). But if Welles were to have cut off the last five minutes of the film, would Citizen Kane still be heralded as a classic? It would still have the same great characters and all the other applauded aspects—except for the very end of the story. Such a cut of the movie would not be a classic because it would have lacked a cathartically fulfilling ending to Kane’s story. Viewers want to know the truth about “Rosebud.” Great characters are an essential ingredient to a great story but not sufficient. A great story needs a great ending that pays off the promises made earlier.
The story is always the most important part of a story, and a story must have a beginning, middle, and end. Well-developed characters that you care about are integral keys to creating a great story, but ultimately characters are a means to an end. That “end” being the end. A story is not a story without an ending. So if a television series like LOST does not provide a satisfying conclusion to its story, then it doesn’t matter how much you cared about the characters—the show failed in its storytelling. The reason people were so upset by the ending of LOST was because they did care about the characters, but not solely the characters. I enjoyed many of those mysterious middle parts of LOST at the time, but that was under the assumption they were leading somewhere. A certain degree of ambiguity and unresolved mystery is acceptable, but in LOST there were dozens of “Rosebuds” left dangling with no payoff. The more you care about fictional characters, the more upset you’ll be over a dissatisfying resolution to their narrative journey.
A story is like an airplane. You need to successfully take off and maintain the flight in the air to your final destination—but then you need to successfully land the plane. Otherwise everything until then would have been for naught. If your plane crashes on the landing, you won’t applaud the crew for the great food and drink service you received mid-flight. The end matters.
This is one reason why I prefer movies over television, short stories over novels, and standalone novels over multi-book series. A series can drag out that middle part of the story for years, delaying a conclusion, sometimes out of fear. That long middle part might or might not be worth it in the end. George R.R. Martin is accused of being afraid to “crash the plane” by publishing the final book to his long-running A Song of Ice and Fire series, as many fans think the Game of Thrones showrunners did crash the plane in the final season of the show—just like the LOST showrunners before them (which was ironically a show about an actual plane crash). I defended the finales of both LOST and GoT at the time, but the more time that has passed, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more disappointed I am by their endings. Because I know those disappointing endings await me, I hesitate to re-watch those shows.
The Sopranos, on the other hand, had a finale that disappointed me at the time, but the more time that passes and the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the brilliance of that seemingly abrupt cut to black. It put the audience in the shoes of Tony Soprano, feeling the paranoia of being a mob boss, knowing that his “end” could come at any time. The next person who walks into a diner could be there to whack him…or not. He might just be there for a milkshake. You never know… The Sopranos was ultimately a psychological study of its star character, and the ending of the series was the ultimate expression of what it feels like to be Tony Soprano. You finally understand why a tough guy like him had so many panic attacks and needed to take Prozac. The Sopranos finale rewards re-watches of the series by giving you a deeper insight into Tony’s character.
Wildly popular stories like LOST and Game of Thrones attract rabid fans who speculate about the series ending for years, which causes the writer(s) to become afraid of disappointing them. That fear makes writers want to prolong the series so they won’t have to write an ending their fans might hate. Hence GRRM keeps going back to write prequels instead of moving forward and concluding A Song of Ice and Fire. This is similar to the type of “audience capture” that online streamers and social media influencers face. They let their audience dictate the content they produce. Great art cannot be created by committee and focus groups, however; the artist must follow his muse. When you’re as popular as Game of Thrones it’s impossible to please everyone, so GRRM needs to stop worrying about disappointing GoT fans and write an ending that first and foremost satisfies himself.
Some storytellers and critics say the destination doesn’t matter, that it’s about the journey and the friends you made along the way. That may be true in life, but not in art. The ending of a story matters dearly. In fiction, the destination is more important than the journey because the destination gives that journey meaning. The end of a story puts everything that came before into perspective. Knowing that Kane cherished his childhood sleigh so much makes you think differently about the wealth and power he accumulated in life. An ending that reveals the truth about Rosebud was essential to making Citizen Kane the classic film it became. Kane was a great character, but he was just one part of a greater story.
I rarely begin writing a story unless I have the ending in mind. The entire plot doesn’t need to be outlined in detail, but I need some idea of where it’s leading. Only if I know the ending of a story can I know if it is a tale worth telling. Having an ending planned can also help prevent the pitfalls of audience capture. You will write toward your destination, not theirs. The ending may not be everything, but you cannot tell a good story without one.